30 October 2007

Business Models Matter

Have you ever tried to swim against a strong current? Even if you are a good swimmer, almost no matter how hard you try, its very difficult to make any forward progress.

This is a similar situation for companies who have business models that work against them. [Business models are roughly defined as the value proposition that your company brings to the market.] No matter how hard you work, or how smart you are, or how great your solution, you don't seem to make any money.

Smart CEOs attack business models first when founding or taking over the leadership of a business. Once they have that down, everything else is much easier to handle. In fact history has shown us that even great CEOs will likely fail with a poor business model and in fact the converse, poor CEOs often are propped up and succeed with great business models. So rather than continuing to swim against the tide, consider altering your model.

So what's a good business model look like?

We have found that good business models have the three characteristics that match up with an immediate, a future and a long term time frame.

Great Profit Margins

Great profit margins - Business thrives on this. Seems simple. However, there are untold numbers of businesses that don't get this. The work hard, sell lots of whatever it is they are producing, and like the old proverb, "will make it up in volume." Actually that is what many of these businesses believe (hope?) - that once their volume is sufficient, they will become profitable.

Instead, smart founders and CEOs seek out ways to make their business profitable today. Clayton Christensen used the term "impatient for profits" in his book Seeing What's Next. It's important to ensure that your business today (or as soon as practical) earns profits and that those profits are not necessarily dependent upon reaching some volume threshold. It certainly makes it easier on your scarce capital to do it this way. Businesses that clearly differentiate themselves from the competition (have a unique offering) generally have an easier time making a profit. They tend to have selling prices that have no direct relationship to their cost - typically large spreads between the two. Instead their prices are based upon their value they deliver to the purchaser. Scarcity helps as well - if you are the only one delivering this solution to a target market - you can often name your price.

Severing the markup-over-cost relationship can accelerate any business model. There certainly are great examples of this in the market, often associated with luxury goods that create a perceived value in the mind of the buyer. But great margins are sometimes found in more innovative ways. I've experienced two technology companies that saw this light. Tangoe, an application software company based in Orange, CT found that their telecom expense management was so good it saved big companies millions of dollars. Rather than just charge some amount that amortized the steep development costs of their software, Tangoe has begun to charge based upon "sharing" that value with the customer. Another company based in Hickory, NC, Transportation Insights, had the insight (pun intended) to charge their customers based upon how much their freight logistics services save their customers, generating large percentage profits for this young company.

At one company that I lead, we found that offering our software as a service (back before Salesforce.com made this term vogue) was our key to juicing our margins. After listening hard to our customer base, we heard there was great value in not just handing them the CDs with the code, but in fact in running the application for them (in this case employee equity management) provided more value and hence higher profit margins. (This move also had an ancillary positive impact on the idea we'll discuss in the next post - stickiness.)

So just don't take the business model you've been handed for granted. Be sure it works for you! If not, no matter how good you are, its probably a critical enough factor to rethink whether this is really a business for you.

Good business model provide enticing profit margins - so enticing that your well-heeled competitors might view this territory as ripe for their expansion. While a good business model (and a great product) might generate some nice short term profits, how do you keep this good thing going?

We call this next stage Stickiness. Stickiness is that quality that keeps your customers loyal to your solution.

Stickiness has another dimension as well. The stickier your solution, the less effort you should have in deriving additional revenue from that same client. Sticky solutions are the "gift that keeps on giving." You've probably been told that is is much cheaper to continue to keep a customer than to try to find a new one. Stickiness trumpets this characteristic ... and more!

Often times smart companies can create solutions that are sold once but paid for on an on-going basis. Subscriptions, leases, maintenance, outsourcing, services, royalties and the like are all examples of long term payouts from a single sale. If you can morph your business model into one that has recurring revenue, rather than a one-time fee, do it! Salesforce.com, mentioned earlier, pioneered a concept called SaaS - Software as a Service. Rather than do what everyone else in the software business was doing - selling based upon a large up front perpetual license fee and relatively small annual maintenance fees (usually running 15-20% of the license fee), they decided for this and other good technological reasons to charge a use fee - based upon the number of users, charged annually. This model changed the dynamics of the software industry. Sell a customer today, collect 100% of this year's fees this year, and then be virtually guaranteed next year's fees next year too! Compare that to the typical company that received 100% of this year's fees today and only 20% of that fee next year. Salesforce.com's model almost guaranteed growth - just by selling one more incremental customer.

Other sticky models are created through a community model. By community, we mean that the company has done something more than just sell you today's solution. They have developed a brand that you become loyal to because they delivered what they promised and they provided the reinforcement for you to continue to identify with that solution. eBay created a great community model that actually became more attractive the more customers it captured - there were more reasons to attend an eBay auction each time a new customer joined.

Each of these characteristics provides an ongoing value proposition for each new customer - one that will continue to generate benefits for the company - and for the customer. Done right, these can be like the proverbial snowball - gaining (revenue) volume at an accelerating pace.

Sticky solutions enable CFOs to sleep at night. Sticky solutions generally have a more predictable and less lumpy revenue flow - characteristics that are valued on Wall Street.

So now you have a great profit margin and a reason for your customers to stick around; what else do you need?

With both profit margin and stickiness, you may be set for the short and middle term. But what about the long term, once competitors have enough time to regroup and mount an attack?

We used to call this a barrier to entry. Most Venture Capitalists used to quiz their founder CEOs on how they were going to maintain their position in the light of big competitors targeting them.

Like security, no protection is fool proof. What you need is to find as much protection as you can today and then run like hell to build yourself as sticky a solution as you can. The government gives you some protection if you have developed something novel by issuing patents and copyrights. Each gives you a bit of a legal monopoly (hence scarcity) on your particular invention. But intellectual property protection is usually not available for services or other non-proprietary businesses, and patents wear out and are costly to defend, copyrights are relatively weak protection, so you will need to take much of this matter into your own hands.

So ultimately your long term protection will be built on establishing yourself, through both bulk and brand. Bulk comes from just that - getting big quick. Companies like RIM who invented the Blackberry was a company just in this situation. They initially relied on patent protection which ultimately backfired (they had to pay almost $1 billion for allegedly violating someone else's patent). But even with that big settlement, they didn't have to fold their tent and go home once their IP barrier was breached. Instead they were large enough to withstand the financial impact, had created a very loyal user base, and continued to innovate off of their original design.

There are always obstacles to customers changing brands - sometimes they are simply psychic impediments such as "I don't know how that new product will work - but I do know that the one I use now works fine" - or sometimes there are real switching costs - like having to convert one's data to a new format. But smart companies rely much more on the positive side of attractiveness to retain their loyal customers. They provide a great continuing customer experience - one that keeps the customer from even thinking about changing in the first place.

Together, great profit margins, stickiness and a good defensive strategy can create long term value for the owners of a valuable solution.

16 October 2007

Presentation to Long Island Software CEO Forum

Last week I presented "Lessons Learned" to a group of software company CEOs on Long Island. Below, using a new tool that I found called "SlideShare," I've embedded the presentation. Let me know any thoughts about it and/or slideshare by leaving a comment.